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Specialists and generalists: Equilibrium skill acquisition decisions in problem-solving populations

  • Anderson, Katharine A.

Many organizations rely on the skills of innovative individuals to create value, including academic and government institutions, think tanks, and knowledge-based firms. Roughly speaking, workers in these fields can be divided into two categories: specialists, who have a deep knowledge of a single area, and generalists, who have knowledge in a wide variety of areas. In this paper, I examine an individual's choice to be a specialist or generalist. My model addresses two questions: first, under what conditions does it make sense for an individual to acquire skills in multiple areas, and second, are the decisions made by individuals optimal from an organizational perspective? I find that when problems are single-dimensional, and disciplinary boundaries are open, all workers will specialize. However, when there are barriers to working on problems in other fields, then there is a tradeoff between the depth of the specialist and the wider scope of problems the generalist has available. When problems are simple, having a wide variety of problems makes it is rational to be a generalist. As these problems become more difficult, though, depth wins out over scope, and workers again tend to specialize. However, that decision is not necessarily socially optimal – on a societal level, we would prefer that some workers remain generalists.

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File URL: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167268112001552
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Article provided by Elsevier in its journal Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

Volume (Year): 84 (2012)
Issue (Month): 1 ()
Pages: 463-473

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Handle: RePEc:eee:jeborg:v:84:y:2012:i:1:p:463-473
Contact details of provider: Web page: http://www.elsevier.com/locate/jebo

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  1. Sanjeev Goyal & Marco J. van der Leij & Jos� Luis Moraga-Gonzalez, 2006. "Economics: An Emerging Small World," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 114(2), pages 403-432, April.
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  3. Francisco José Acedo & Carmen Barroso & Cristóbal Casanueva & José Luis Galán, 2006. "Co-Authorship in Management and Organizational Studies: An Empirical and Network Analysis," Journal of Management Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 43(5), pages 957-983, 07.
  4. Kremer, Michael, 1993. "The O-Ring Theory of Economic Development," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 108(3), pages 551-75, August.
  5. Åstebro, Thomas & Thompson, Peter, 2011. "Entrepreneurs, Jacks of all trades or Hobos?," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 40(5), pages 637-649, June.
  6. Edward P. Lazear, 2004. "Balanced Skills and Entrepreneurship," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 94(2), pages 208-211, May.
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